The (Play with) Fire Sermon

We left “The Waste Land”  last time in certainty and doubt. For one of the few times the narrating voice of a part of “The Waste Land” has given its name. Yet despite the male pronoun I used throughout our last post, that narrator, Tiresias, is noted in mythology as having lived as both a man and a woman. Tiresias tells us as he? observes a loveless evening, a coupling between a typist and a clerk in a lower-middle class London apartment that “I Tiresias have foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed.” What does Tiresias mean by that line? That he knew the dreary outcome on account of his ability to foretell the future from listening to the sound of birds? Or does Tiresias mean Tiresias has lived as both a man and a woman, experiencing cold and selfish desires from both sides?

There’s a third possibility: Tiresias is both the typist and the clerk, the man and the woman—or at least as far as Tiresias second sight and bi-gendered history offers wider insight, Tiresias may be living and empathetically experiencing this section in a way that is almost that. In today’s section we stay with the woman (or Tiresias as the woman) and reflect on the aftermath of the tryst. That Eliot makes that choice bears noting.

I’m embarrassingly unfamiliar with most of Eliot’s later work after “The Waste Land,”  but by reputation and summary I’m unaware that gender fluidity features much in it, just as I’m unaware of any later works featuring a distinctly woman’s outlook. Eliot’s own romantic and inner emotional life has been subject to much conjecture, but at this point in time, influenced perhaps by his marriage and his wartime experiences teaching working-class women, he seems open to making an effort. Of course that doesn’t mean happy and fulfilled women, “The Waste Land”  features no creatures of any gender like that.

The title of this section of “The Waste Land,” “The Fire Sermon”  references a key lecture of the Buddha where he lists and describes all sensory inputs as burning, by which he means they are contaminated by inconstant and misleading desires. But as Eliot continues in painting his grubby and lifeless London, his portrait is largely passionless—sex and sexual matters are most often at the level of a business exchange. Eliot’s is not a straightaway dramatization of Buddha’s sermon, nor of the state of superseded desire Buddha preached as The Way. It is, however, a portrait of how a depressed individual views the world. Buddhists believe attachments to things desired brings suffering. Depressives may have achieved their state in reverse: suffering, they believe that nothing desired will bring joy.

Only at the end of today’s segment does any beauty sneak in. The narrator recalls being outside a bar, hearing music, and seeing “inexplicable splendor” in the interior of an old church. Where does it go from here? We’ll return to “The Waste Land”  later this month and take things up from there.

A moment in the glass, a record on the gramophone.

 

 

Musically today, I couldn’t resist a connection between “The Fire Sermon”  and its air of unsatisfying sexual barter and one of the earliest successful songs written by Jagger and Richards of the Rolling Stones: “Play with Fire.”  I played off that song’s chorus riff somewhat, but my piece is so slowed down that it sounds like a 45 rpm single being played at 33 1/3 rpm. To hear my performance of the section of “The Fire Sermon”  I call “The (Play with) Fire Sermon,”  use the gadget below. To follow along with the text of the poem, it’s here.

Let me also mention that if the grim details of our exploration of “The Waste Land”  isn’t to your taste, we have well over 300 other pieces here where we combine other words with original music in various styles.

 

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Tiresias

Each April, as part of National Poetry Month I’ve been recording a performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  and presenting it here in serial fashion. This year we’re performing the third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon.”

When we last left “The Fire Sermon”  we were by the not-so-sweet Thames river where (as elsewhere in the poem) voices and diction were constantly changing. We don’t know who, or how many “whos,” were speaking in that segment, but the narrator in today’s section identifies himself as Tiresias. As we’ll soon see, Tiresias is as shape-shifting in body as the poem has been in voices.

Tiresias’ has many characteristics in the various mythological tales told of him. He’s able to predict the future, and he does this by studying birds (augury) and in particular by studying birdsong.*  He’s blind but is able to perceive things anyway through second sight and acute hearing. He’s said to have been given the gift (or curse) of an extra-long life. He also has the ability to talk to the dead, and in some stories talk to the living after his death. But perhaps the most remarkable part of the Tiresias story is that he was transformed from a man to a woman, and back again.

Tiresias_striking_the_snakes

Tiresias as he is transformed into a woman by Hera because he killed a female snake.

 

We open not with Tiresias introducing himself, but with his encounter with a merchant, who seeks some kind of meetup with the narrator. There are some who tell us the meetup locations suggested indicate that the narrator is being propositioned for a homosexual tryst. If so, this would be consistent with the closing song in the “Sweet Thames”  section, referring to heterosexual prostitutes and that section’s opening in some kind of any-affiliation “after the party” ennui by the river. And so the theme is set: “The Fire Sermon”  is going to talk about sex and what passes for love.

Now Tiresias introduces himself, and his sexual fluidity, as he begins to tell what seems at first a straightforward story: a typist has come home to her small  apartment. Hers is a low-paid job in the early 20th century business/bureaucracy, one often filled by the new “working woman.” She’s taking care of after-work household necessities, including collecting her drying laundry scattered across the room’s couch (which also serves as her bed), and fixing a meal.

Tiresias tells us he already knows what’s going to happen, and since mythologically he’s told the fortunes of kings and heroes, he’s sort-of over-qualified to tell this story.

And sure enough, Tiresias tells us a young man (carbuncular, i.e. covered with zits) arrives. He’s another wage slave, a clerk, who affects a silk hat that he thinks makes him look like a wealthier man. The typist and the clerk have a meal the typist has cooked and then he, hurriedly, unromantically, and with no real consent, jumps her bones.

And here Tiresias tells us he’s not just seen this all before (in both senses of the phrase, as someone who can predict the future, but also as a demi-immortal for whom this story only changes costumes and scenery as it repeats) but that he’s experienced it as both genders.

And then it gets weirder. That back-story of Tiresias’ own history with sexual exploitation is told in a long compound sentence in parenthesis. Today’s section then ends with an unstated someone who “bestows one final patronizing kiss, and gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit” out of the apartment. Is that the young man carbuncular, or Tiresias, or are they one in the same? And for that matter what of the woman, the typist?

As they used to say in serials, tune in tomorrow, as our story continues. To listen to my performance of this segment of “The Waste Land”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*And birdsong acts as a bridge between our first segment of “The Fire Sermon”  and this one.

**There are a great many interpretations of “The Waste Land”  and its sections. Mine is far from the most learned. I could use footnotes to try to explain every reference and connection in the poem—at least until my learning and research ran out—but I’m choosing to resist cataloging all the connections and references, so that we can appreciate the poem as an impressionistic, imagistic, musical suite of scenes, voices, and songs. If you’d like to read along, here the whole poem.

Sweet Thames

Was I being audacious when I compared Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  to a modern hip hop/rap production sampling various parts and levels of the world’s culture? I don’t think so (though maybe I should be worried). I’m not going to get into a rap battle between T. S. Eliot vs. Missy Elliot, or a discussion about “Kendrick Lamar, is he a ‘real poet?” like my generation used to discuss Bob Dylan. My aging generational knowledge isn’t deep enough to discuss Lamar or Elliot as intelligently as I should. I’m more comfortable discussing folks who were born long before I was, but someone like Charley Patton is too O. G. to bring up here often. After all, T. S. Eliot and Charley Patton are my grandfather’s generation, born in the 19th century. People like me can be pretty good in figuring out what lessons our grandparent’s completed lives impart, not so good at what lessons our children should learn from us, and terrible at what lessons our children could teach us.

Charley Patton and T. S. Eliot

Charlie Patton and T. S. Eliot: two young swells put their best foot forward beside different rivers in the 1920s.

 

Eliot may have thought he was copying cubist paintings or cinema montage or some French poetry, but he chose this sampling tactic or he would have done something else. Who was Charlie Patton copying? I don’t know exactly. Maybe he made it up. Maybe some griot or indigenous shaman whispered it in his ear.

T. S. Eliot was his own kind of odd guy, odd to his contemporaries, even if he eventually became enormously influential in the Modernist literary movement that had taken over poetry education by the time I was a student. When I first introduced “The Waste Land”  here I said there’s two things you need to know to approach it, and they aren’t esoteric at all: first that it’s musical and intended to be, and second that it’s written by a person suffering from depression, a common human malady that colors and filters perception profoundly. Now, following my grappling with it in the past few years, I’ll add two more things, neither of which require reading about Grail legends or From Ritual to Romance  either: it’s written by a man writing for a culture coming out of a tremendous wartime trauma and it’s written by a man struggling to come to terms with human sexuality, it’s sins, pleasures, and disappointments.

On the war issues, Eliot is guiltily living, not dead, in a world where many others weren’t so lucky. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 15 and 19 million people were killed in WWI, the majority from the European theater that had become Eliot’s home. Given this level of death, it’s not surprising that Eliot personally knew people killed in the war. Most of his British literary contemporaries served in the war, he didn’t. Indeed, while WWI raged, he tried to disengage from the war, to continue to focus only on scholarly issues and his literary writing.*

Eliot’s an American from St. Louis in a foreign country and he’s gotta figure out how to trans-Atlantic code-switch. He goes in full-force, becoming so completely English that he eventually was able to style himself as an authority on what was appropriately British. After the conclusion of the war, as a literary critic he can write about “objective corelative” and all that, but he can no longer ignore the trauma his adopted country and the rest of Europe has suffered.

Last year’s segment “A Game of Chess”  rolled-up into one audio file in our last post, portrays marriage darkly and introduces rape and sexual coercion as one of the underlying themes in “The Waste Land.”  Here we know little about Eliot’s own experience, other than his marriage to an English woman was dysfunctional. As we move further into our section for this year, “The Fire Sermon,”  sexuality is further brought forward in an unflattering light.

As the section begins in the segment I call “Sweet Thames”  we’re back in a ruined landscape, the titular “Waste Land.”  The scene seems post a debauched party season, missing even the messy vitality of that. Eliot, a man who grew up near the banks of the southern Mississippi is now on the banks of London’s Thames river.

And then he, or some incarnation of the poem’s speaker, the many voices in Eliot’s head, is fishing. Following the literary and critical references, this is the Fisher King, and we could look to a trail of ancient myths, but I chose to keep it immediate and funky in performance. This is a dirty, river-rat frequented urban river. He wants us to know that he’s fishing next to a gashouse, which I take to be one of those now obsolete processing furnaces that turned coal into coal gas, a smelly and polluting process usually relegated to the worst part of town. The anachronistic pendant in me found this amusing, as a decade after ex-St. Louis boy Eliot wrote “The Waste Land”  his home-town Cardinals baseball team used to intimidate their opponents by wearing stinky unwashed uniforms and were given the nickname “The Gashouse Gang”  for their smell and general lack of decorum. There’s no known connection for this coincidence, but it’s good that they didn’t wait until later in “The Fire Sermon”  and to then become the World Series winners dubbed “The Young Men Carbuncular.”

As the section nears an end point another song-sample break is dropped,** the Mrs. Porter section. Eliot noted that it was an Australian army folk song, and further research indicates that the Mrs. Porter may have been a Cairo brothel keeper known to the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where a dear friend of Eliot, Jean Verdenal was killed in battle. Depending on how salty the soldier-singer may have felt, the body parts being reported as washed varied.

I like to think that Charley Patton, further down the Mississippi river, might have known that tune, but since neither he nor T. S. Eliot are here to sing this, you can hear my performance using the gadget below. If you’d like to look at the text of “The Waste Land”  while you listen, the full text is here.

 

 

*Like Ezra Pound his overseas American citizenship status complicated things, and like Pound there are some stories that he made an effort to serve. Eliot did teach night-school literature classes to working-class English women during the war however, and it’s easy to speculate that he may have picked up things later incorporated into “The Waste Land”  from that experience.

**And for all you carpe diem fans, did you note the sample from Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress”  here, when just before Mrs. Porter soda-washing-song he says “But at my back from time to time I hear…” and instead of a winged chariot, it’s motorcar horns. If given the choice of grave or sex, I think Eliot would have held out for a third choice.